In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.
This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship–and innocent love–that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.
Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice–words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.
Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.
Henry Lee is so young when he is estranged from his father—right at the kitchen table. Mr. Lee is proud of his Chinese heritage, yet ambitious for his son to assimilate into American society. So much so that he won’t allow Henry to speak anything but English at home, even though he and Henry’s mother only know their native Mandarin.
At the prestigious Rainier Elementary in the 1940’s most of the local children only see Henry’s Asian complexion and almond eyes. The bullies are happy to lump him together with the “enemy” Japanese, even though he wears a button saying he isn’t. Things are about to change. When Keiko begins to attend Rainier they strike up an alliance since they are both falsely accused and bullied. As they become friends, an even deeper bond is formed. The loneliness resulting from the limited communication with his parents is ironically one of the very things which compels the young boy to look for companionship where it’s unexpected.
Despite his father’s prejudice against the Japanese who had killed his family in China, Henry learns that you can’t tell a book by its cover. Keiko is more American than Japanese. Since they live in separate neighborhoods, with separate cultures they might as well be a world apart. When the U.S. government moves Japanese American citizens to internment camps Henry and Keiko don’t allow the prejudices of others to separate them in heart. A sweet young love develops that cannot be completely torn apart by distance or time.
While the story begins decades later as Henry is reminded of the past, after he has been widowed, the poignancy of a first love shines through and unfolds beautifully through the telling of the story. The ongoing struggle between generations is illustrated in not only Henry’s relationship with his father but also his own son. Henry must learn from the past to move into his future.
I enjoyed the depth of the characters, the rich description of Seattle’s China Town, Japan Town, and even its jazz culture. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet brings to life the different kinds of battles fought on the home front during World War II through the eyes of a young Chinese American boy in a very touching way. Highly recommended!